Sri Lanka opinion all at sea on ‘Indo-Pacific’ questions
Posted on June 5th, 2019

By Lynn Ockersz Courtesy The Island


The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan sails in waters off Okinawa, alongside a refueling ship.

There is considerable heated discussion and debate currently in Sri Lanka over two military cooperation agreements that are featuring in this country’s ties with the US and the time could not be more appropriate to achieve a clear understanding of some of the external compulsions that impact on a small state’s foreign policy formulation process. Those important sections that are party to these discussions would do well to ensure that we have more ‘light’ than ‘heat’ in these efforts at deliberation.

The discussion in question is pervaded with a good measure of populist sentiment and this does not augur well for clear-headed commentary. Those taking it on themselves to comment on the issues in question would do well to realize that foreign policy cannot be intelligently thought out on the basis of knee-jerk or sensationalist reactions to public issues.

It is a home truth that it is quite some time since we began to live in an interdependent, globalized world. It is not possible for small states in particular not to interact with major powers and institutional actors of note, on a multiplicity of fronts, including, very crucially, the economic. Countries have interacted with each other since time immemorial but the external compulsions to do so are at their intensest at present.

Accordingly, agreements with world actors who are seen to matter are unavoidable if a country’s national interest is to be served. It does not follow that states could plunge head-long into international agreements without working out their implications for themselves on a number of planes. But speaking to the world and interacting with it on a give-and-take basis is a must.

The international questions confronting small states in particular have never been more complex as they are today. This is particularly true of South Asia in general and Sri Lanka in particular. It is to international economics that one must go if today’s foreign policy dilemmas are to be understood clearly. And if these issues are found to be brain-teasing for some they could not be faulted. A resolution of these matters, indeed, calls for thinking skills of the highest order.

The merit of a statement by US Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick M. Shanahan, published in this newspaper on June 3 and 4, is that it provided a comprehensive and detailed presentation of US policy in the region described by the US as the ‘Indo-Pacific’.Whether found to be acceptable or not the statement needs to be read and understood if the considerations and compulsions pushing US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific are to be grasped.

Whether seen as hegemonic or otherwise the US will find itself to be increasingly interested and involved in the Asia-Pacific. This is where its most vital interests lie and an impartial, dispassionate assessment of the ground realities would reveal the attractions of the Asia-Pacific for a super power. The same goes for China, and the latter being a predominant power, cannot be faulted for being growingly interested in the Asia-Pacific either. A scientific approach to understanding the conduct of these powers is what is vitally needed and a succumbing to populism would result in an obfuscation of the issues involved.

The major powers are not driven in the main by political idealism but by factors and compulsions that serve their national interest best. The same goes for all states and what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Small states given their minor status and relative powerlessness in the world political order need to work towards their interests amid this correlation of international political forces, as best as they could. After all, these realities could not be wished away.

As pointed out in this column often, the global South currently has no powerful collective body that could voice its concerns and work collaboratively towards its interests. For instance, NAM that played this function at one time is almost no more. Small states, such as Sri Lanka, are orphaned and they have no choice but to deal very diplomatically and cordially with the big powers to further their interests.

This is the stark truth about the world political order. If small states are to change this state of things in their favour they would need to ‘organize’ themselves into an effective collective body that would make an impression on the big powers. Hopefully, that would be so.

In the detailed statement made by Shanahan the following strikes this columnist as very important, considering the foregoing:’Our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific recognizes the linkages between economics, governance and security that are part of the competitive landscape throughout the region and that economic security is national security.’ This pronouncement is important for the light it sheds on some of the basic compulsions driving the US’ engagement with our part of the world.

Since ‘economic security is national security’, and this is true for all countries, given the predominance of the economic in the affairs of states, the Asia-Pacific would need to brace for a prolonged US military presence. However, these same considerations happen to essentially shape Chinese foreign policy as well, since the Asia-Pacific is the world’s number one growth centre. In fact, all major powers would be seeking to have an enduring presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Given Sri Lanka’s relative powerlessness it would need to relate on the best of terms with all these major powers. It cannot afford to earn their disfavour although it cannot compromise its self-respect as a country. Since these powers are here to stay Sri Lanka would need to get on the best it could with the US, China, India, Japan and Russia, to name the most notable among these foremost powers.

The Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement which Sri Lanka has signed with the US and the proposed Status of Forces Agreement between the countries have aggravated Sri Lanka’s foreign policy dilemmas which are not amenable to early resolution given Sri Lanka’s powerlessness. After all, the international power balance in South Asia cannot be changed in a hurry because of the enduring attractions for the big powers of the Asia-Pacific. Sri Lanka could, however, negotiate patiently with the US to ease off some of the more controversial provisions in these agreements. It is left with no other choice. 

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